March 12, 2006
Anonymous Source Is Not the Same as Open Source
By RANDALL STROSS
WIKIPEDIA, the free online encyclopedia, currently serves up the following: Five billion pages a month. More than 120 languages. In excess of one million English-language articles. And a single nagging epistemological question: Can an article be judged as credible without knowing its author?
Wikipedia says yes, but I am unconvinced.
Dispensing with experts, the Wikipedians invite anyone to pitch in, writing an article or editing someone else's. No expertise is required, nor even a name. Sound inviting? You can start immediately. The system rests upon the belief that a collectivity of unknown but enthusiastic individuals, by dint of sheer mass rather than possession of conventional credentials, can serve in the supervisory role of editor. Anyone with an interest in a topic can root out inaccuracies and add new material.
At first glance, this sounds straightforward. But disagreements arise all the time about what is a problematic passage or an encyclopedia-worthy topic, or even whether a putative correction improves or detracts from the original version.
The egalitarian nature of a system that accords equal votes to everyone in the "community" — middle-school student and Nobel laureate alike — has difficulty resolving intellectual disagreements.
Wikipedia's reputation and internal editorial process would benefit by having a single authority vouch for the quality of a given article. In the jargon of library and information science, lay readers rely upon "secondary epistemic criteria," clues to the credibility of information when they do not have the expertise to judge the content.
Once upon a time, Encyclopaedia Britannica recruited Einstein, Freud, Curie, Mencken and even Houdini as contributors. The names helped the encyclopedia bolster its credibility. Wikipedia, by contrast, provides almost no clues for the typical article by which reliability can be appraised. A list of edits provides only screen names or, in the case of the anonymous editors, numerical Internet Protocol addresses. Wasn't yesterday's practice of attaching "Albert Einstein" to an article on "Space-Time" a bit more helpful than today's "184.108.40.206"?
What does Wikipedia's system offer in place of an expert authority willing to place his or her professional reputation on the line with a signature attached to an article?
When I asked Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, last week, he discounted the importance of individual contributors to Britannica. "When people trust an article in Britannica," he said, "it's not who wrote it, it's the process." There, a few editors review a piece and then editing ceases. By contrast, Wikipedia is built with unending scrutiny and ceaseless editing.
He predicts that in the future, it will be Britannica's process that will seem strange: "People will say, 'This was written by one person? Then looked at by only two or three other people? How can I trust that process?' "
The Wikipedian hive is capable of impressive feats. The English-language collection recently added its millionth article, for example. It was about the Jordanhill railway station, in Glasgow. The original version, a few paragraphs, appeared to say all that a lay reader would ever wish to know about it. But the hive descended and in a week, more than 640 edits were logged.
If every topic could be addressed like this, without recourse to specialized learning — and without the heated disputes called flame wars — the anonymous hive could be trusted to produce work of high quality. But the Jordanhill station is an exception.
Biographical entries, for example, are often accompanied by controversy. Several recent events have shown how anyone can tamper with someone else's entry. Congressional staff members have been unmasked burnishing articles about their employers and vandalizing those of political rivals. (Sample addition: "He likes to beat his wife and children.")
Mr. Wales himself ignored the encyclopedia's guidelines about "Dealing With Articles About Yourself" and altered his own Wikipedia biography; when other editors undid them, he reapplied his changes. The incidents, even if few in number, do not help Wikipedia establish the legitimacy of a process that is reluctant to say no to anyone.
It should be noted that Mr. Wales is a full-time volunteer, and that neither he nor the thousands of fellow volunteer editors has a pecuniary interest in this nonprofit project. He also deserves accolades for keeping Wikipedia operating without the intrusion of advertising, at least so far.
Most winningly, he has overseen a system that is gleefully candid in its public self-examination. If you're seeking a well-organized list of criticisms of Wikipedia, you won't find a better place than Wikipedia's coverage of itself. Wikipedia also provides a taxonomy of no fewer than 23 different forms of vandalism that strike it.
It is easy to forget how quickly Wikipedia has grown; it began only in 2001. With the passage of a little more time, Mr. Wales and his associates may come around to the idea that identifying one person as a given article's supervising editor would enhance the encyclopedia's reputation.
Mr. Wales has already responded to recent negative articles about vandalism at the site with announcements of modest reforms. Anonymous visitors are no longer permitted to create pages, though they still may edit existing ones.
To curb what Mr. Wales calls "drive-by pranks" that are concentrated on particular articles, he has instituted a policy of "semi-protection." In these cases, a user must have registered at least four days before being permitted to make changes to the protected article. "If someone really wants to write 'George Bush is a poopy head,' you've got to wait four days," he said.
When asked what problems on the site he viewed as most pressing, Mr. Wales said he was concerned with passing along the Wikipedian culture to newcomers. He sounded wistful when he spoke of the days not so long ago when he could visit an article that was the subject of a flame war and would know at least some participants — and whether they could resolve the dispute tactfully.
As the project has grown, he has found that he no longer necessarily knows anyone in a group. When a dispute flared recently over an article related to a new dog breed, he looked at the discussion and asked himself in frustration, "Who are these people?"
Isn't this precisely the question all users are bound to ask about contributors?
By wide agreement, the print encyclopedia in the English world reached its apogee in 1911, with the completion of Encyclopaedia Britannica's 11th edition. (For the fullest tribute, turn to Wikipedia.) But the Wikipedia experiment need not be pushed back in time toward that model. It need only be pushed forward, so it can catch up to others with more experience in online collaboration: the open-source software movement.
Wikipedia and open-source projects like Linux are similarly noncommercial, intellectual enterprises, mobilizing volunteers who will probably never meet one another in person. But even though Wikipedians like to position their project under the open-source umbrella, the differences are wide.
Jeff Bates, a vice president of the Open Source Technology Group who oversees SourceForge.net, the host of more than 80,000 active open-source projects, said, "It makes me grind my teeth to hear Wikipedia compared to open source." In every open-source project, he said, there is "a benevolent dictator" who ultimately takes responsibility, even though the code is contributed by many. Good stuff results only if "someone puts their name on it."
WIKIPEDIA has good stuff, too. These have been designated "featured articles." But it will be a long while before all one-million-and-counting entries have been carefully double-checked and buffed to a high shine. Only 923 have been granted "featured" status, and the consensus-building process is presently capable of adding only about one a day.
Mr. Wales is not happy with this pace and seems open to looking again at the open-source software model for ideas. Software development that relies on scattered volunteers is a two-step process: first, a liberal policy encourages the contributions of many, then a restrictive policy follows to stabilize the code in preparation for release. Wikipedia, he said, has "half the model."
There's no question that Wikipedia volunteers can address many more topics than the lumbering, for-profit incumbents like Britannica and World Book, and can update entries swiftly. Still, anonymity blocks credibility. One thing that Wikipedians have exactly right is that the current form of the encyclopedia is a beta test. The quality level that would permit speaking of Version 1.0 is still in the future.